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Poetry and drama have more in common than is often assumed, including various “performative” qualities. Examples of such qualities include the following:
- A drama almost always consists of at least two persons, with one addressing the other. Some poems, such as John Donne’s “The Flea,” also imply a speaker and an addressee.
- In drama, the distinction between the author of the work and the speakers who are characters in the work is very clear. In poetry, it is always safest to assume a similar distinction. For example, in John Donne’s “The Flea,” it is safest to assume that Donne has created a speaker who is distinct from Donne himself. It is risky, when reading this poem and many others, to assume that the speaker speaks for the author or expresses the author’s views.
- In some poems, such as the “dramatic monologues” of Robert Browning, it is often quite clear that the speaker of the poem is quite distinct from the author of the poem. No one would assume, for instance, that the speaker of “Porphyria’s Lover” is Browning. The distinction between author and speaker in poems such as this one is almost as explicit as it is in most dramas.
- Poetry often has qualities of sound (including alliteration, assonance, anaphora, rhythm, etc.) that sometimes almost seem to demand that the poem be read aloud or “performed.”
- Some dramas (such as Shakespeare’s) are often full of poetry in the fullest senses of that word, and some poems (such as Milton’s Paradise Lost) are often full of literal drama – that is, dialogue and speeches.
- Much poetry is explicitly addressed by a speaker to a specific hearer whose identity is made absolutely clear (as the precise identity of the person addressed in Donne’s “The Flea,” for instance, is not made exactly clear). Consider, for example, the opening lines of Donne’s second “holy sonnet”:
As due by many titles I resigne
My selfe to thee, O God, first I was made
By thee, and for thee, and when I was decay'd
Thy blood bought that, the which before was thine . . . .
Donne is a perfect example of a poet whose works are often highly “dramatic” in every sense of the word.
In all these ways, then, poetry can often seem as implicitly “performative” as drama is explicitly “performative.” Much depends on the way the poet employs his speaker(s), his sound effects, and his tone(s).
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